Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An(other) Actor's Perspective

This week's post features an interview to New York City young actor Yohan Belmin.

Yohan is a French actor, singer and musician. He has studied acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York for the last two years and seems to be on the way to a very interesting acting career.
He told me facts and details about his childhood, the peaceful suburban town he was raised in and his being fond of the English language and culture. Yet, one detail he kept stressing on: his dimples. He says that, were he to ever become famous one day, it will be thanks to his dimples, although - and he is so sure about this - they will never get him cast to play a historical character.
Some of his credits include the Off-Broadway play Holiday in Heaven, the off-off Broadway show I Know All Save Myself Alone (where he plays French poet François Villon), and the movie Stock Broker. 

Yohan was awarded the Award for Best Monologue at the Winter Film Awards 2012.

What are some of your early memories as a kid?
I first discovered my creative side at 4, and it wasn't about acting! I discovered I had (and still have) a true passion for music and, particularly, the piano. The funny anecdote is that I started playing the piano on my own: after my brothers would finish taking their lesson, I would rush to the piano and try to recreate by ear what they had been playing. It was only after several months that my parents finally decided to offer me piano lessons as well, a decision that nobody ever regretted!

When was it that you decided to become an actor?

I discovered acting at 11, when I was (this time) “forced” by my parents to join an acting class for kids at the local theatre of my hometown. I was a shy boy and I remember immediately enjoying it; it brought me all the freedom that I would not allow myself to have in my everyday life. The revelation came the first time I performed on stage with the group: it was a production of Oliver Twist and I was dressed as one of the little pickpockets. That night was the first time I ever felt truly alive and in harmony with what I was doing: it gave me the same intensity as when I was at the piano, along with a sense of abandonment that I had never experienced before. It was crystal clear to me, since that night, that acting was bound to become an important part of my life.

After high school, I thought about studying acting and slowly starting a career but I did not feel mentally ready to take this risky step at such a young age. So, instead, I went on studying mathematics, which I enjoyed, at Dauphine University in Paris. I became a member of the Acting Association of the university and even became the president of the association for the last 2 years of my studies. But the more I made my way through my Master’s program, the more I realized this was not where I wanted to go. Nevertheless, I finally graduated after working part-time in finance for what has probably been the unhappiest year I had experienced in my life. The good side of it is that it finally gave me the strength to decide it was time for me to start pursuing my dream!

What brought you to New York?

After some intense research on where I would like to study acting, the choice of the Lee Strasberg Institute came naturally to me. I was just delighted when my application was accepted. So, I moved to New York in January 2010. 
Studying at the Institute changed my life. Only there did I understand how empowering it is to be able to follow your passion. The walls around me started disappearing, and I realized all of a sudden that I hadn’t breathed that easily since I was a child. I graduated in June 2011 and finally started working as an actor in New York soon after. I knew I had made the right decision when in 2012, I had the pleasure and honor to win the award for Best Monologue at the Winter Film Awards, for performing the opening monologue of Harold Pinter’s One for the Road. This prize could not have arrived as a better blessing for me in an industry that constantly pushes you to question yourself whether or not you are strong enough to make it.

How do you usually approach a character?

I usually start by finding the similarities between him and me. I read the script a first time mechanically and pinpoint the moments when I naturally feel for him, share his struggles or joys, or on the contrary hate him, and ask myself why it makes me react that way. It often brings me back to specific events of my life, which I write down and explore in the future. I then read the text again by taking each sentence “off the page” – I discovered this technique (or should I say “non-technique”) after reading Harold Guskin’s How To Stop Acting. It personally stimulates me to respond more instinctively to the line. Therefore, it helps me to figure out additional moments where I naturally empathize with the character. Then, I work by substitution, trying to find the selected bits of my life that could be applied to the character’s life, little by little eliminating the ones that do not excite me. This usually leaves me with several choices that are great but do not fit perfectly with the situation(s). This is when the mathematical side of me surfaces, and starts obsessing me to find the best possible variables to resolve the equation! i.e. I take one of these “great choices” and change the elements that do not quite work for me. Once the equation is somewhat settled and makes sense to me, I go further into my investigation by
sensorially exploring the variables, of course using exercises and tools from the Method.

Is there a role you worked on where you had to radically change your approach and the way you built your character?

Yes. When it happened, it was mainly because I did not have any script, as the whole performance was based on improvisation. I once played the role of a stock broker who paid the services of an escort girl to talk about his problems, in the feature film Allure, by Vladan Nikolic. Since the scene had to be improvised, I decided to create and write my own character history. After writing it, I started the exact same process as if I had been provided a script, except that I did not connect or find exciting similarities between me and the character; I anyway had the freedom to rewrite the story and to make it ideal for me! It ended up Quite unexpectedly, what I thought would be one of the toughest scenes of my blooming career became my most enjoyable experience in film so far!

What techniques do you use? Do you mainly use the Method?

As I trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute, I mainly learned to use the Method during my 2-year stay at the school. I find it to be a very fascinating tool for the actor. My personal experience with it is that I always had a hard time applying the exercises to my scene work. I succeed in finding a sense of truth while using exercises in my preparation work, but I feel somehow blocked once on stage, not all the time, but often enough.
One day, a friend of mine recommended to me Harold Guskin’s book and told me it changed his vision of acting, saying it was an easy read. I finished the book in one afternoon and decided to give it a try. I connected really well to the idea of taking the lines off the page while reading a script and preparing for a role. But then I thought: instead of focusing on only one acting approach, why can't I just pick what excites me the most in every approach and try to make it my own recipe? In that sense, I still use the Method for my preparation and exploration work, because it has always helped me and led me to fascinating breakthroughs (I find the private moment exercise to be extremely powerful), but I would rely more (as of today) on Meisner’s and Guskin’s approaches for rehearsal work and performances.

Are you more of a theatre or film actor?

Until recently, I always considered myself as a theatre actor simply because it was what I was doing best. I experienced acting for film for the first time after I moved to New York. Acting in front of a camera has been a real challenge for me at the beginning. But I decided that the best way for me to learn how to become a good film actor was to confront myself being on set more and more often. This is when I realized that stress is what was blocking me initially. 
After more than a year of experimenting film acting, I can finally come home after a long day of shooting and say to myself that I will not look too bad on camera.

What are your hobbies besides acting?

Besides acting, I really love to sing. I like to believe that one day I will be able to land a role in a musical on Broadway! Being in a show on Broadway, even for one night, is definitely one of my all-time dreams. Until then, I’d better practice hard!

Any advice to all the foreigners willing to come to NY to start an acting career?

Don’t do it, it’s a trap! 
No, seriously, I would first tell them that it is not as impossible as we think it is, but they should reasonably prepare themselves to face rough times. Getting to know the city while being at school strongly prepared me to confront with the acting world. Also, it's necessary to have a backup plan, or strong faith in yourself, or both! I believe it will make your life much easier to know that things will not happen as expected. This will prevent you from falling all the way to the ground. Finally, and this is the most important piece of advice: if it is your dream, forget everything I said before and just do it! Even if you fail, you will be proud of yourself for trying and, in any case, it will change your life forever and for the better. 
As clichéd as it may sound: believe in yourself and keep dreaming!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Night At The Opera

One of the hundreds comments to the complete album upload on YouTube reads, "The Beatles reached greatness, Queen reached perfection".
As questionable as the first part of the sentence might be, there's no arguing over the second part.

A Night At The Opera is Queen's fourth studio album, released in 1975 and, probably, their best one together with Innuendo and Made In Heaven.

As they came closer to Freddie Mercury's end, Queen's music became more introspective, animated by a sense of almost religious reverence towards the memories of their glorious personal and professional past.
A Night At The Opera is, instead, where Queen rocks. Literally.

Brian May's electric riffs in Sweet Lady alternate with Roger Taylor's great drumming, and Freddie Mercury's voice reaches the pitches of quicksilver; Wikipedia terms it "distorted rock". I honestly don't know what that means, but if I were a writer, I'd think it describes it perfectly. Roger Taylor mentioned, in a later interview, that "Sweet Lady" had the most difficult drumming part he ever performed.
The song is followed right by "Seaside Rendezvous". That's where Freddie Mercury's dandy style and unique sense of humour come out at their best, together with "Lazying on a Sunday Afternoon":
if Oscar Wilde had been a rock-star, he would be Freddie Mercury.

But there's not only rock.
Love of my Life is the song I'll sing to my loved one tonight, as I talk her to sleep, and like "Lazying on a Sunday Afternoon", "Seaside Rendezvous", and Brian May's amazing Good Company, although in slower and dimmer ways, it features the nicest Victorian whims.

Bohemian Rapsody.
How can I describe it?
The album alternates pure rock with lighter strumming ("Good Company" is played almost entirely on an ukelele by Brian May. An ukelele in a rock album!). There's John Deacon's romantic mood with "You're My Best Friend" and Mercury's insults in "Death on Two Legs". There's Taylor's car roars in "I'm in Love with my Car" and May's visionary dreamworld in The Prophet's Song. Then, there's Bohemian Rapsody.
Bohemian Rapsody has it all: the perturbed introspection of he that can scream, but that knows how to whisper too and deals with the sadness of existence. Here, Freddie Mercury fears but also mocks his own destiny. His call to Beelzebub sounds more like "Come and get me, if you can" than "Spare my life". But the sweetness with which he addresses his mother can only be found in the last song he ever sang, "Mother Love". And then, who hasn't, at least once in their lifetime, identified with the words, I don't wanna die / but sometimes wish I'd never been born at all?
There's fragility and arrogance, defiance and surrender, sighing and mockery, all framed in Freddie's daffodilly frills.

In A Night At The Opera, Queen blend a fastidious search for perfection in each fraction of the album songs with vocal and instrumental experimentalism.  
No Beetles could have ever come to such heights.
Only Queen.

What's your favorite Queen song?


Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Beginning and the End

Jack Kerouac's Desolation Angels
Linger on the first and last sentences of a book and you will grasp its deepest essence.
The opening and the closing sentences always stand out. They represent the nuclei of the book, whose meaning is itself contained in the universality of these sentences.
They must be true haikus in prose.    

Think of opening lines like, "Call me Ishmael" in Moby Dick, or, "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen", in  Orwell's 1984. Think of "For a long time I would go to bed early" in Proust's Swann's Way, where a simple word, would, sets the tone of Proust's entire majestic work. The ending of Swann's Way is even more revealing: "The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years." Proust discloses here the reveries that, at a given stage of our life, inevitably occupy our soul, and he does it just beautifully.
"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day" introduces Jane Eyre, while Dan Brown begins his fast thriller Angels and Demons with, "Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own", revealing the particularly sadistic hues of his novel.
Jack Kerouac begins On the Road with, "I first met Dean when my wife and I broke up", ending it, "I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty".
Bram Stoker apparently did not charge his opening line with too heavy a responsibility, but listen to the closing words following Count Dracula's death: "And, to our bitter grief, with a smile and in silence, he died, a gallant gentleman", where the last two words, "a gallant gentleman", represent the finest tip of the hat with which one can pay homage to a defeated but honorable enemy.

The opening and closing line of a novel can tell a lot about the skills of the author and the quality of the work itself. This is easily verifiable today by simply setting foot into a bookstore and randomly grabbing fiction books to check out their beginning and end. You will see that only a small percentage out of tens of books you hold in your hands actually deserves being on that shelf.

You certainly cannot judge the quality of a novel by only inspecting a detail of it. Or two. Only by reading the entire book will you be granted certain confirmations. Yet, when a book is a novel and a masterpiece at the same time, the closing and opening line will certainly reveal that. Alone, they will contain the innermost and deepest nature of the book and its author; were you to read them only, that would be enough for you to grasp the beauty, the poetry and the essence of the whole work.

Ever thought about it?
Any opening or closing line from novels, movies, and whatnot you'd like to share?


Friday, November 9, 2012

Reality and Fiction

The paper reported, a few weeks ago, the case of an Italian teacher, Franco Mastrogiovanni, who died after being tied up to a psychiatric hospital bed for 82 consecutive hours receiving neither food nor water and being ignored by the medical staff that kept passing by him. The 82 hours of pure agony were recorded by a camera and the video made public by a local newspaper.

The fact reminds of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring Again by South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk. The first chapter, Spring, has a Buddhist apprentice, a young kid, spend a few hours with his master near a creek not far from the monastery. The kid is playing around with stones and pebbles. For the fun of it, he's able to catch a small fish and ties a small stone to it. He later does the same with a frog and a snake, laughing and amusing himself as the animals struggle to keep alive. The master observes the scene in silence, but that night, while the kid is sleeping, he ties a rope with a heavy rock around him. The morning after, when the kid wakes up, the Buddhist master tells him that he cannot untie himself until he has freed the three animals; he also warns him that if just one of them has died, he will carry that stone of guilt forever in his heart.
The boy rushes, but the fish is dead. The frog is agonizing. The snake lies in a pool of blood: it was attacked by another animal and, unable to defend itself because of the rock tied to its body, it succumbed.
As he realizes what he has done, the boy begins to cry very heavily, riddled with guilt.

Reality and fiction often overlap, don't they.
Yet, in fiction, one way or another, through hecatombs or destruction, through the rattling of machine guns or the hissing of slit throats, a moral, even if a cheap one, always finds its way through.

This is the difference between reality and fiction:
in fiction we come to a definitive learning from what has happened once.
In real life, what has happened once, can happen again, and again, and again. 

Have you ever been kept tied to a bed or a rock with a heavy rope?